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Friday, January 30, 2004

QUOTE OF THE DAY Just my feelings, I'm sorry to say, and I'm a daily reader of the print-version Groan:

. . . the Guardian retreated even further into its Left-wing laager. Its constant preaching of the politics of compassion sits strangely with the often mean-spirited and malicious manner in which it treats those of whom it disapproves (I write from personal experience but many others will know what I'm talking about) while its news and analysis has become almost entirely driven by its own narrow agenda. At its worst it is little better than a student rag.

Andrew Neil

Sunday, January 25, 2004

COLLATERAL DAMAGE OF ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT This is a point I've been argueing for a long while now:

But where is Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as all the air gets sucked out of the international institutions, which have almost no time for anything but Israel-bashing?
The primary collateral damage of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that it has given the world's tyrants a breather, and disenfranchised millions who look to the international community for survival and defense.

Must-read the whole piece by Saul Singer.

THIS SOUNDS LIKE FUN . . . In a week's time there's going to be a big fun gathering in Teheran, as Amir Taheri reports:

Militants from some 40 countries across the globe are trekking to Teheran for a 10-day "revolutionary jamboree" in which "a new strategy to confront the American Great Satan" will be hammered out.

. . .

Today, Teheran is a magnet for militant groups from many different national and ideological backgrounds. The Islamic Republic's hospitality cuts across even religious divides. Thus militant Sunni organizations, including two linked to al-Qaida - Ansar al-Islam (Companions of Islam) and Hizb Islami (The Islamic Party) - enjoy Iranian hospitality. They are joined by Latin American guerrilla outfits, clandestine Irish organizations, Basque and Corsican separatists, and a variety of leftist groups from Trotskyites to Guevarists. Teheran today is also the only capital where all the Palestinian militant movements have offices and, in some cases, training and financial facilities.

Not exactly my guest list of foreign dignitaries to invite to my next do, but then tastes vary. I bring this up specifically because debates often fail to take into account how relevant Iran is for British security. A threat to America or Israel? Perhaps, but surely not Britain? One of my main points about the war on terror is that terrorists do tend to gravitate towards cooperation even if they are ideologically far removed from each other. Teheran is the main hub in which this cooperation takes place and is organised. While of course the risk emanating from the IRA or other such groupings can be assumed to be relatively low at the moment, this kind of international network makes it possible for them to survive and hone their skills outside British territory, ready to strike whenever the political situation shifts accordingly. As Jonathan Stevenson has argued this may still be a possibility, especially if the peace process produces results not conducive to the terrorists' goals and particularly the more the shock-effect of 9/11 wears of and terrorism becomes less of the all-encompassing evil that it became then. To fuel the whole danger Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The bottom line is that action taken against any of the aforementioned groups, their state sponsors or failed state territories where these groups could set up base indirectly helps fighting the Northern Ireland terror problem. While this is an indirect issue, Iran's role amongst Shiia Iraqis is of far more urgent concern. Recently David Pryce-Jones wrote:

Today the Shia are educated, organised and armed very differently from 1920. Loose among them are also hundreds of Iranian agents, for the moment daubing anti-Western graffiti on walls but otherwise biding their time - the British appear to be taking no protective measures against these potentially subversive elements.

The complacency in regards to Iranian meddling in southern Iraq, the British zone, is inexcusable if it is in fact that widespread. While many in the anti-war camp will say this is what it all leads to, it is clear that to counter the risk of an Iranian influenced Shiia insurgency only a regime change (probably from within) in Iran will secure the reconstruction of Iraq and not put British troops there at unnecessary risk. In the meantime the Government should seriously start to come up with a pr strategy with which to explain to the public why we need to send more troops to Iraq without causing a panic; also finding a way to prevent the terror-nutter-paranoiaics ruling Iran from thinking they're about to be invaded and thus leading to "uncautious" behaviour.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

SUPPORT FOR IRAQ WAR CONTINUES TO RISE In the Guardian of two days ago (sorry, paperboy was rather late and I don't bother reading the online version), a most recent poll was released that shows that public support for the toppling of Saddam has risen further from 47% on November 18th to 53% now. Rather ironic given that in the time the doubts about the wmd claims have strengthened and the number of people who believe Blair lied about the issue also rose. On the other hand Saddam's capture may have shifted public perceptions; so could have Libya's offer to disarm itself, in part a result of the invasion. Meanwhile post facto opposition to the invasion remained at 41%.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

GUARDIAN CALLS FOR US-STYLE TAX CUTS! Impossible I hear you say. Read here and be amazed. Unsurprisingly it's not advocating tax cuts to roll back the frontiers of the state and encourage economic growth and a society of individual responsibility. It only asks for tax breaks to enable more charitable giving, specifically in the arts. It would be great if this could really work:

With changes already enacted since 1997, charitable giving through tax effective methods has jumped nearly 25% to £2.3bn. But the long term goal should be to match the US, where individual giving amounts to 1.75% of GDP, or $183bn a year. The equivalent here would be £17bn, about two and half times what we give to charity now.

I'm not sure we'd achieve quite the same return rates as happens in the US, because in the US the old tradition of philanthropy and charitable giving has not been interrupted and allowed to atrophy in the same way that happened in Britain in the post-war period. But I'm optimistic that with a few years of such new taxation rules these older traditions of voluntary commitment of money to the social good could be reinvigorated. The advantages of smaller government and a more human face to the provision of social goods are clear so let's hope this happens. Coincidentally, the Tories could do worse than fully endorse this, might help to improve their chances of getting a vote from me.

STOP FUNDAMENTALIST HAIRDIYING Now there's a lot to be said about the French government's decision of banning all religious symbols from schools, most of it negative. But I think even those who think it's a great idea and that we ought to consider it for emulation might be a little disheartened by this:

He also warned that hairstyles or the wearing of certain colors could be a source of manipulation. "Signs could be invented using simple hairiness or a color," he said. "Creativity is infinite in this regard."

It seems governments' creativity to find new nuisances with which to pester the citizenry is also quite infinite. So some colours are going to be banned as well? As for those "religious" bandanas:

Neither man gave a definition of what constitutes a religious bandana, how teachers would decide what was an "ostensible" sign of religion, or how the new law would be implemented.
Asked to define a bandana, an official assigned to deal with news media inquiries in the ministry, said, "There is no definition. It will be left to the discretion of the heads of schools."

More arbitrary power to teachers and school heads! Groan.

Monday, January 19, 2004

ECONOMIC FREEDOM AND POLITICAL FREEDOM Thanks to Freedom and Whisky for the link, the Heritage Foundation has just released its annual report on global economic freedom. In seventh place the UK has managed to hold on to one of the top places despite regulation-junkie Gordon Brown's tax increases.
The interesting question is of course the link between economic and political freedom. When you look the bottom of the heap there is little surprise in seeing that the most economically repressive state, North Korea, is also the politically most repressive to the point of insanity. Less clear is the situation when you look further up. The clearest indication being number one, Hong Kong, which in terms of political freedom lags far behind most countries in the economically "mostly free" category. So, one can conclude that economic unfreedom goes hand in hand with political repression, but it doesn't necessarily seem to work vice versa with economic freedom leading to political freedom. That might be worth a closer look.

NO MORE HITLER PLEASE The comparison Bush=Hitler is trotted out by the anti-war left at an incredible frequency and to an extent that anybody who actually has any idea about the things Hitler did can only find morally perverse and genuinely disgusting (for a take-down, see this piece). Reason's Cathy Young takes this tendency to task, and being a writer of balance she brings up some quite repellent examples of the right's promiscuous use of the fuehrer-manouvre:

Meanwhile, on the pro-Bush right, there's a gem of a column published on Jan. 5 by the New York Post. The author, retired Army officer and writer Ralph Peters, manages to compare Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean to Hitler, Goebbels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Brezhnev. (It's a wonder that Mao and Saddam Hussein didn't make the cut.) And how does Dean warrant this comparison? He and his followers try to "restrict the free speech of others" by attacking their critics on the Internet. (That's right up there with being sent to a concentration camp.)

(. . .)

Talk-show host Laura Schlessinger said that the neglect of children in day care centers is "like something out of Nazi Germany."

Oh, come off it. That is just too ridiculous. A good non-American example:

A Brazilian judge said last week that the US requirement that visitors from some foreign countries be fingerprinted and photographed is worthy of "the worst horrors committed by the Nazis."

You know what, if that is the kind of thing the Nazis did and for which they are forever imprinted in our collective memory as the purest embodiment of worldly evil, I think we owe Adolf and co an apology. I missed that in my history studies, but I had a vague feeling there may have been something slightly worse the Nazis were associated with than taking fingerprints of visitors from states whose security screening standards were lower than their own. I can only with agree with Young that the Hitler comparison should be dropped unless we are actually dealing with a politician or a regime engaged in comparable crimes.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

FUN-WRITTEN NEWS REVIEWS There's always enough dry analysis out there on issues of politics so it's good to see something genuinely fun to read. The first piece I'd recommend is by Michael Kinsley in the Washington Post. It's on Paul O'Neill whom I mentioned a few posts below in connection with some "revelation" that Bush apparently was in favour of regime change in Iraq before 9/11. The piece concludes:

As described by Paul O'Neill, life inside the Bush administration is like life itself (according to Macbeth): "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The only solid punch he lands on President Bush is unintentional: What kind of idiot would hire this idiot as secretary of the Treasury?

Hmm, something to think about. The other gem concerns Iraq and our efforts to rebuild the country, in the current issue of the Speccie by Ross Clark, who

wonders whether Iraqis would prefer clean water and electricity or Britain's taxpayer-funded 'gender advisers'

Well, at the risk of sounding imperialist, colonialist, insensitive, etc. I'll take the liberty to answer instead of the Iraqis with a clear statement that Iraq needs water, energy, jobs and security far more than gender balancing on a level, that would go much further than in any Western country. Conclusion:

It is hard to imagine anything more calculated to send oppressed women in the Arab world diving back inside their burkas. Never mind the joys of liberal democracy; if Iraqi women were given a straight choice between Saddam and a ruling class of sisters-with-attitude parading through the streets on inflatable vaginas, I'm not entirely sure that they wouldn't choose the former.


Friday, January 16, 2004

HOW RELIGIOUS IS AMERICA REALLY? In the current issue of Prospect there is an excellent article by Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Centre for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College on Americans' religiosity. The idea that Americans are all religious maniacs and probably bent on erecting a Christian theocracy in the US is a very popular image here in Europe and is often quoted to explain anything about America that the largest section of European opinion making doesn't, or more accurately, doesn't want to understand about America, whether it be a preference for voluntary vs. state welfare provision, invading Iraq, American patriotism or whatever else is on the plate. It's a must read article that convincingly concludes:

But to believe that the US is about to turn into a theocracy is to misunderstand both America and its believers. Nor, because of the importance of the religious right, will the US close its borders to non-Christians. (Europeans, in fact, although less religious than Americans, are also more likely to insist on the Christian character of their societies in the face of Muslim immigration than Americans.) America's conservative Christians are as American as they are Christian and conservative. And that I find reassuring, because it tells me that if they have to choose between old-time religion and the seductions of modernity, they are more likely to opt for the latter.

(As an aside note: it is probably because they are less religious that Europeans feel their Christian heritage and basic character of their culture threatened in a way that more observant Americans don't. For example, I more-or-less-regularly attend Anglican-Episcopal churches that have large and vibrant congregations, so I cannot for the life of me feel, that somehow the religious quality of the society I live in would significantly altered by a handful of Muslims more or less. But if I had never seen a church from the inside but took the Christian churches as the sole exercises of religion in my society for granted, I suppose then an increase in Muslim believers would actually be something new one would have to accommodate to, and we all know that this often ends in hostility towards the unknown "other". On the other hand, please don't be carried away into believing that sending the whole lapsed-Christian population to regular Anglican services will put an end to Islamophobia. It's not that easy, sorry.)
I'll briefly comment on some of the issues Wolfe raises.

when religion and American culture come into conflict, as they often do, culture tends to shape religion far more than the other way around. And because US culture is individualistic, populist, entrepreneurial and experiential, old-time religions that stand for unchanging truths, rigid dogma, and strict conceptions of sin do not have much chance.

Although Wolfe doesn't say, the conclusion is that under such circumstances religion will be near impossible. All religions ask at least to some extent, that we go against these trends; most commonly to put our own happiness back to help others. The other thing they normally call for is the adherence to some sort of tradition for its own sake.

Those who fear that born-again Christians stand in opposition to modernity fail to recognise what it means to be born again. Traditional people inherit the views of their parents and grandparents and pass those views on to their children and grandchildren. Born-again Christians, by contrast, value authenticity of experience over historical continuity.

So, they reject tradition as well. This leaves us with a religious movement that refuses to be organised. Perhaps it's at least serious about getting in touch with God's will directly?

No other aspect of their faith is as important to conservative Protestants as worship: prayer, visible and frequent, is what attracts them to church. But worship in conservative Protestant America rarely involves introspective efforts to honour a supreme being whose concerns are other-worldly. (. . .) most involve health, money, and real estate, along with issues facing the church. We should not doubt the meaning that worship has for conservative Christians. But nor should we ignore the fact that, judging by how many believers express themselves in prayer, these are people who believe that God helps those who focus on themselves.

Unsurprisingly, many of the Christian leadership are not particularly happy about this. I can't quite avoid the creeping suspicion that this is perhaps not quite as serious a religious movement at all, but rather more, at the risk of sounding patronising and unnecessarily hostile, like s self-improvment or 60s counter-culture find-youself type thing. I mean, how on earth can a movement so dedicated to individual salvation, actually fulfil the Christian idea of helping others? Reaching out to help others, independently of who they are and their circumstances, is one of the central tenets of Christianity, so in a way the evangelicals are a sort of post-Christian Christianity, and are just another manifestation of a widespread trend in the modern West, that has turned its back on tradition, because tradition wasn't "producing results" rapidly enough. So, instead of strengthening traditional religion this pick-and-mix approach will actually weaken the Church and Christianity, just in a way that the less Christianity-fixated fast-food-religionists will do, that Libby Brooks portrayed. Religious and moral improvement, like all social progress, is something that requires great patience and the willingness to put up with doubts.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

GERHARD SCHROEDER, TOWERING GENIUS OF POLITICS In fact quite literally. I'm not going to admit how long it took my slow brain to register what's so funny about this photo, but enjoy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

THE PROBLEM WITH NOAM CHOMSKY There is a link at Normblog to this new blog, which I have just added to the blogroll. As a beginning I'd recommend this piece on Noam Chomsky. It's the most compact analysis of Chomsky's political writings and shows how the basic premise that helped him be a true revolutionary in the area of linguistics led him to his rather less praiseworthy forays into foreign policy analysis. The trouble with Chomsky is that he is not just read by an American audience, interested in critiques of their own government, but has the majority of his readership in overseas. Again this needn't necessarily be a problem. Where the problem starts is the fact, that the vast majority of those readers will never have read anything else, either on world politics or US foreign policy than the one-sided rants of Mr Chomsky. They will never have read a book using the same methodology examining, say, the EU, British, French, of German foreign policy. That is largely of course because such books either don't exist, or where they do exist, they only have a very small readership. Now, for an American, Chomsky could, if you were inclined to interpret his works so, have a "progressive" impact leading to greater scepticism of government. Nothing wrong with that. However, for non-Americans, the effect is different, simply saying: Amerikkka is evil. So instead of a wannabe-progressive meaning, for EUropean readers it more strongly has a nationalist, chauvinistic meaning of anti-Americanism. This is especially the case because their own governments are virtually never subjected to such criticism (certainly never by EUroland's dedicated anti-Americans), quite the opposite, they are lauded for standing up to the "real evil empire", even when that means making common diplomatic cause with China, Saudi Arabia and their ilk. So, although that's presumeably not the way he intended it, Noam Chomsky is in fact a chief propagandist for EU-chauvinism.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

MORE EMBARRASSEMENTS FOR PRO-WAR CASE First up, the easy one, an academic at the US Army War College has just presented a report arguing that toppling Saddam was a strategic error because Saddam was "deterred". (He also says that defeating al Quaeda and stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will prove to be unsustainable in the long run, which sounds quite alarming, particulraly in light of the fact that there is no choice but to do so. But that's another story) So, Saddam was "deterred"? No, he wasn't, and if you want to find out why, you could do worse than my posting from November 17 or go straight to David Aaronovitch's piece. More startling however may the PM's apparent change in tune:

Tony Blair yesterday signalled that weapons of mass destruction may never be found in Iraq, in his first admission of fallibility over the central justification he gave for going to war with Iraq.

Quite a contrast to his former bullish self. This will however have to go further. In order for the public to regain confidence in our governmental and defence intelligence capabilities, the PM will ultimately have to come entirely clean and admit that the issue of wmds was hyped up. He will then have to explain why and how he -and presumeably Bush as well- decided to base their case for war on the intelligence community's worst case scenario. Nothing less will do.

Monday, January 12, 2004

ON O’NEILL’S „REVELATIONS“ Paul O'Neill, who was Bush's original finance minister until he was sacked either over political differences or simple incompetence, has revealed that Bush had already asked for ways to topple Saddam only days into the beginning of his term. Is this really a sensational revelation as most news outlets are hyping it up to be? Not quite. Bush had already announced his intention that an administration led by him would try to effect regime change in Iraq while on the campaign trail. So this shouldn't really be treated as such great news. On the other hand, for me personally this was quite a surprise. Why? My dislike of him when he was running for president and when he took office, was his isolationist bent, and I feared the exact opposite on Iraq, namely that Bush wouldn't go after Saddam. Seems I got the Bushies wrong. Thinking back, I can't actually remember why I originally formed that opinion of Bush jr. Might be interesting to go back and find out why. As for O'Neill's claims about Bush's stupidity, Scrapple Face puts that and the Iraq business in perspective. Anyway, if all goes well, I should be able to post about how my false impression of Bush's approach to Iraq came about near the end of the week, because I’m too busy to do so earlier.

Friday, January 09, 2004

WHO TO RUN AGAINST BUSH? One of the big questions of the year, and not just for Americans. At the New Republic's website there are some pieces up argueing the merits of the various candidates. I'll link to those that made any noise over here: Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. In the end I find the editors' choice of Joseph Liebermann probably most convincing and given his foreign policy credentials from what I know he is the candidate most likely to pursue the good bits of Bush's agenda (getting tough of terrorism, etc) without the bad bits (snubbing allies, etc). In short he would make the US's new toughness look nice, which is just what us embattled Atlanticist hawks on the other side of the big pond could do with.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

PREDICTIONS 2004 So, what do I guess, hope, expect, suspect, fear, will happen in the year 2004? (And yes, I know that dividing time up into units called years is entirely arbitrary and a purely human construct unrelated to structural developments etc., so don't even fantasise about pointing this out to me with a sense of intellectual superiority and smugness.) Other people have also been voicing some change of year thoughts, of which I would recommend Jackie D's and Daniel Johnson’s.

And here's some of my own guesses:

We'll be saying goodbye to Tony Blair as Prime Minister. I'm not sure yet why, it's just a hunch. Heart attack? Back-bench rebellion? Will Labour figure that even Michael Howard can't dent their power and decide on a splurge of tax and spend the Blair won't go along with, but for which Gordon Brown will be quite ready for? Let's see, but he's going.

There will be no attempts whatsoever to bring any sort of reform into the public services, as Labour either remains too complacent about a challenge from the Tories or spends the year with infighting. Public mood will however become hostile during the end of the year about the huge spending increases and no accompanying performance improvements.

The European Union's expansion into the East will be remarkable smooth, making many people wonder aloud what all the fuss was about. There will be some half-hearted attempt to resusciate the constitutional debate, but for this year the issue will remain sleepy as enlargement rightfully gets all the attention.

The situation in Iraq will get a little worse, before it starts improving significantly. Our troop levels will start going down rapidly towards the end of the year, the proof for the link between Saddam's regime and 9/11 will surface and we will discover a huge heap of deployable wmds. I think that's the best case scenario, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of highly delusional, wishful thinking. And if not? Well, Iraq is free-ish, Gaddafi is scared enough to pre-emptively disarm himself, ditto soon Syria and Iran.

There will be some headaches and heartaches but at some point, and in some way the rule of the loons in Teheran will come to an end, Iran will see its own regime change, hopefully and quite possible conducted by itself. If not and Iran's nukes get close to the ready-for-use stage Israel will be forced to nuke them, not a nice prospect, which the US and the UK would presumeably preempt by going in ourselves to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. That would be a very dissappointing outcome and would disgruntle the Iranian revolutionaries in spe. So let's wish them well.

In the US the big question will of course be: Will George Bush be reelected? Well, I don't really know. At the moment it looks more likely than not. Whether this is a good thing I don't know, depends on his potential replacement. I'm not familiar enough with US domestics to say who is or isn't cool, but given the rapturous reception Howard Dean is getting in the German media I would guess he would be a catstrophe. But I may be wrong.

The war on terror will probably run along as it has before, the West still won’t pay enough attention to Africa, drugs will not be legalized, there will be no voice in British politics calling for a welfare reform that would replace the over-complicated and useless current system with a single type benefit and we will no closer to resolving our orientation and identity crisis. I’ll hand a closing space to Mark Steyn:

The real story of this past year is not Saddam, but something deeper, symbolised by the bizarre persistence of the "anti-war" movement even after the war was over. For a significant chunk of the British establishment and for most of the governing class on the Continent, if it's a choice between an America-led West or no West at all they'll take the latter. That's the trend to watch in the year ahead.

Don’t view this as pessimism, but as sober reflection of the challenges ahead: Happy New Year!

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